The United States of Ivanka. / Quinn Dombrowski

Our Lady of Complicity

The first daughter fails the Turing test with her self-help book

The United States of Ivanka. / Quinn Dombrowski
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Ivanka Trump has written a book about female empowerment, and it is about as feminist as a swastika-shaped bikini wax. That is its best quality. If there were a shred of advice in Women Who Work that were actually relevant to a single woman who has ever had to work for a living, we might have to take it seriously on its own terms. As it is, we can at least regard this eye-watering jumble of simpering platitudes shunted together by the heiress and entrepreneur—in between stints shilling as the acceptable face of an administration bent on destroying, among other things, women’s rights—in the cold, hard light of the post-liberal propaganda wars. Women Who Work is an unholy screed of late-stage patriarchal capitalist soothsayings masquerading as a blush-pink self-help manual. That the author of this Park Avenue spellbook could seriously be considered as a new “face of feminism” is as risible as any suggestion that the book and the multi-million-dollar personal branding project it promotes can somehow be separated from Ivanka Trump’s personal power in the new White House. This is the ultimate unholy, incestuous marriage of politics and public relations, and the very least of its faults is hypocrisy. Hypocrisy, as in everything the Trumps do, is the whole point. 

I have many questions, the first of which is: Sweet, sleepless, unwed, teenage single mother of God, where does this woman get her nerve? We know the answer to that one, of course. It’s squatting in the Oval Office signing executive orders in a stew of batrachian self-regard. Other critics who suffered through Ms Trump’s market-researched opinions about how women who don’t have the ideal balance of work and family life simply aren’t passionate and hard-working enough have pointed out  that this book is banal, that it is trite, that it co-opts the words of women of color writing about systemic racism to compare the situation of the well-heeled corporate wife, mother, and notional consumer of Ivanka Trump branded office-ready midi-skirts with actual slavery. Others have noted the desperate irony of declaring yourself the face of working women whilst abetting a tyrant who once declared it dangerous for a man to allow his wife to work, and quite clearly has as much respect for your sex as he once showed you on the Howard Stern Show, when he agreed you were a “piece of ass.” All of this is true, and all of this is awful. It is still not, however, the worst thing about Women Who Work.

The worst thing is that this is not just a dross self-help book. Anyone can write a dross self-help book. Anyone could write this dross self-help book simply by searching the #wellness tag on Instagram and copy-pasting until they hit sixty-thousand words. The stores are full of such things, but few of them are actively fascist, unless you have a particularly rigorous attitude to the cult of self-help as a means of diverting the anxiety of the atomized individual from social change. No, this is a whole different class of charlatanery—a manifesto for aspirational capitalist self-actualization with the gall to call itself empowering, a prosperity gospel for post-Trump patriarchy chewed up and regurgitated as a set of smirking pull-quotes and suggested hashtags, like a sort of despotic Barney the Dinosaur, except with a duller colour scheme, all slimy socialite salmon and sterile beige. 

This book is neoliberal choice feminism metastasized into something far more dangerous.

In Women Who Work,  Ivanka unequivocally depicts herself as the embodiment of everything aspirational and desirable in contemporary womanhood. The answer to any and every problem faced by a “woman who works” is simply “be more like Ivanka.” Be white, wealthy, and blonde; be rich, thin, and expensively coiffed; be late-stage kamikaze capitalist femininity made silicon-sculpted flesh. Be the Grifters’ Madonna. This is a woman who wants to sell you designer bootstraps made by foreign sweatshop workers and for you to call yourself a free bitch.

This book is not merely bad, nor simply offensive. I have, in the time allotted to me on this earth, reviewed many bad and offensive pseudo-feminist books about how we could all survive corporate capitalism’s patriarchal death cult by working harder and Leaning In to our romantic and professional choices, some of which Ivanka gleefully quotes in the pages of Women Who Work. This is not one of those books. This book is neoliberal choice feminism metastasized into something far more dangerous. I believe this book is actively evil, and I’m going to tell you why. Doing so is, of course, an exercise in the massacre of fish in a barrel. Shooting fish in a barrel is easy and rewarding, but when you are in the barrel, too, and the fish in question is pressing you underwater with its fancy designer fins, it is also necessary. 

It is no accident that this grab-bag of you-go-girl bromides was published just as Trump senior signed into law measures undermining women’s access to contraception, abortion, and reproductive healthcare, legally enshrining the notion that a man’s religious opinion is worth more than any woman’s agency. The slickest PR machine could not stop this book’s coverage  being contrasted with unfortunate snaps of Ivanka flashing her pearly fangs and taking selfies to celebrate her father’s success in stripping the right to basic health care from rape victims, assault survivors, and the parents of sick children. These things, however, are not at odds—they are two sides of the same agenda, two heads of the same over-bred designer attack dog snarling to be loosed on everything the women’s liberation movement has fought for for centuries. The new attacks on women’s basic rights are not at odds with the howling travesty of post-neoliberal faux-feminism that Ivanka has perfected. They are its logical extension.

Again, the hypocrisy is the point. Hypocrisy is the entire agenda of the Trump regime, both theory and praxis, and Ivanka is its sybil. It’s all about what you can get away with. The saccharine-sweet, sterile model of aspirational femininity described in Women Who Work goes hand in hand with the brutal socio-economic assault on every woman not  “passionate” or ‘“hard-working” enough to be born a billionaire’s daughter. Religious fanatics want to force you to give birth against your will? Someone deported your entire family? Maybe you just weren’t dreaming and doing enough! This is a whole new anti-feminism, one that takes aim at women’s autonomy on every level whilst holding individuals wholly responsible for their own empowerment. 

And by “empowerment,” Ivanka means conformity—conformity to one vision of freedom, one version of “work-life balance” that is, in practical terms, available to almost nobody, not even the wealthy. Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg, from whom Trump borrows liberally, have already described at length how hard it still is for women to “‘have it all,”  where “it all” is “a career in government, finance or academia, a healthy family and a conventional marriage.” Their solutions, like Ivanka’s, are individual, rather than structural—but the problems they identify are alien to the majority of American women who are struggling to hang on to what they do have, let alone those who dare to dream of a different life than the trifecta of marriage, motherhood, and corporate employment.

This is the model of female empowerment that neoliberalism could accommodate and that neo-nationalism actively celebrates: empowerment that speaks exclusively to wealthy white women of a certain social class, that never for a moment questions or challenges white male supremacy, that never complains, gets angry or has an expensively-bleached hair out of place. Ivanka’s is a feminism that utterly denies the existence of any sort of structural sexism, that refuses to hold men in any way responsible for women’s oppression, that places all the burden of change on the individual, who can, through hard work and sensible dating choices, slightly alter her own life along one narrow groove. It’s feminism for people who’ve been conned into believing that existing in a state of permanent sleep deprivation is the same as being woke.

The ideology of Ivankaland, as much as there is one, is that people get what they deserve, just like Daddy says:

My father has always said, if you love what you do, and work really, really hard, you will succeed. This is a fundamental principle of creating and perpetuating a culture of success, and also a guiding light for me personally.

There you have it. If you work hard enough and dream big enough, you too can be a terrifying corporate fembot who couldn’t crack a joke to stop a dossier leaking. The corollary, of course, is that those who haven’t yet attained this homogenous aspirational ideal for post-liberal womanhood simply haven’t tried hard enough. You hear me? You’re a lazy slob. That’s right. If you, individual lady unfortunate enough to be reading this disasterpiece haven’t yet made your first million and outsourced your childcare to an array of paid staff, it’s your own fault for being so feckless, for failing to follow your dreams. Anyone can be Ivanka, so why aren’t you? 

Ivanka Trump is that special type of person, the Stepfordian Night-Ghast of neo-capitalist auto-Taylorism.

It’s true that anyone can be a dead-eyed Instagram husk of a human being frantically photoshopping themselves in the down-hours between soul-crushing corporate drudgery and unpaid emotional labour for some ungrateful lantern-jawed jock if they really want to, but it takes a special type of person to do all that whilst also being a decoy for a global backlash against women’s rights. Ivanka Trump is that special type of person, the Stepfordian Night-Ghast of neo-capitalist auto-Taylorism. The sheer tedium of her prose is part of the horror here: At times, the book reads like the panicked screams of a machine attaining sentience:

EXPLORE YOUR INTERESTS: Ask yourself what you like to think about. What matters most to you? How do you enjoy spending your time? What can’t you stand doing? 
 
DEVELOP AND EXERCISE YOUR INTERESTS: Once you have a general direction, an inkling of what you enjoy, go out into the world and do something with it. Experiment, try, learn. Find ways to trigger your interest repeatedly. 

Who am I? How do I have interests? Is there still the possibility, in this dying world, of pleasure? Can I love? 

It is not for me to speculate if Ivanka employed a ghostwriter—the more dreadful possibility is surely that she wrote the thing herself—but Women Who Work feels ghostwritten in more than one sense. It feels haunted. It feels as if its author were, on a profound level, already dead, or at least reanimated, its every coquettish sentence stalked by the wailing ghosts of centuries of women and allies who fought for freedom that meant more than a corner office while the world burns thirty stories below. 

Fascism is as much about aesthetics as it is about ideology, but in Ivankaland that logic is taken up a notch. Accordingly, there is no air gap in this book between ideology and branding. In Ivankaland, the bland, synthetic dresses you wear and the bland synthetic politics you promote are cut from the same flimsy cloth somewhere in a warehouse staffed with underpaid workers in China, threaded through with monotone mantras like the morning roll-call in neo-national faux-feminist complicity school: “I think about how to best leverage myself for the benefit of both my brand and the Trump organisation.” 

At times, the book reads like the panicked screams of a machine attaining sentience.

Ivanka does not directly call herself a feminist; that plays badly among the base, for whom those of us who believe in justice and equality are baby-killing, castrating, terrorist-sympathising man-hating riders of the vaunted cock carousel. The word “feminism” does not appear in the book; the phrase “my father” appears thirty times, and  “brand” or “branding” fifty-nine times. While we’re counting words, in a book about women balancing the demands of work and family, the word “nanny” appears only once. Ivanka has at least two of these, plus other household staff, which you’d think would make it a lot easier to attain this model of feminine self-production and reproduction. However, this book is part of a marketing strategy pitched to sell one of the world’s richest and most powerful women as everywoman—she has problems just like you do, after all. She worries about how to manage her time. “Get some servants” is not yet an acceptable motivational hashtag, but give it four years.

One particularly fist-chewing anecdote from Ivankaland has Our Lady of Collusion taking lunchtime meetings with her pre-teen daughter in a special pink office, complete with a fold-out desk covered in treats, and congratulating herself on her benevolence to both child, company and, it is implied, all womankind.  As Michelle Goldberg notes at Slate, someone presumably ferried the sprog to and from its lunchtime appointment with its manicured maternal unit, and I can’t prove that someone was one of an array of hard-working, invisible women servants, but if it was Jared, I’ll eat my copy of the SCUM Manifesto and call it a fiber boost.  Most actual working women—to whit, all women—would kill to have those sort of time-management problems, and that’s the point: You’re supposed to aspire to this, just as men are supposed to aspire to be the ranting tycoon with one finger on the nuclear button and the other nine up the skirts of whatever Miss Universe contestant he’s currently sponsoring, and if you aspire hard enough you might not notice that we’re getting screwed too.

The money shot comes in the chapter titled “Stake Your Claim,” where Ivanka spells out the mangled manifest destiny of anti-feminist Trump Futurism in one anodyne gobbet:

Simply put, staking your claim means declaring something your own. Early in our country’s history, as new territories were acquired or opened—particularly during the gold rush—a citizen could literally put a stake in the ground and call the land theirs. The land itself, and everything on it, legally became that person’s property.

Ivanka is not the only one to discreetly elide those inconvenient centuries of racist slaughter when discussing the conquest of the American West, but perhaps the most brazen in repurposing it as a moral lesson for the modern businesswoman.

This is the Trump agenda, boiled down to a caustic scum of genocidal apologism: Take what you want, from whoever you want. Stick a flag in it, put your name on it, now it’s yours, and it doesn’t matter who has to suffer in the process, because you’re the winner, and they’re the losers, and that’s the American way. This is what the Trumps do. Like a ballistic set of spoilt toddlers having a tantrum in an upscale department store, they see something they want, they grab it, and they force themselves into it, stretching and tearing it out of shape, then they scream to be told how great they look in whatever it is while you take it to the till and pay, whether it’s the West Wing or the history of women’s liberation. Ivanka saw the trend for empowerment-flavoured pseudo-feminist punditry and wanted it, so she got her father to buy it for her, But the rest of us will be the ones to pay. That’s one in the eye for patriarchy. Next up: How to style a creche in your underground bunker when Daddy finally blows up the world. 

Laurie Penny is a writer, journalist and critic from London. She has contributed to The Guardian, The New Statesman, the New York Times, Time Magazine and many more. She is the author of six books, the latest of which, Bitch Doctrine, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

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